Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David S. Reynolds

Committee Members

Eric Lott

Robert Reid-Pharr

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | American Popular Culture | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Musicology


antislavery, music, African-American, literature, nineteenth-century


Resonant Texts: the Politics of Nineteenth-Century African American Music and Print Culture, investigates musical sound as a discursive tool African American writers and activists deployed to contest enslavement before the Civil War and claim citizenship after Emancipation. Traditionally, scholars have debated the degree to which nineteenth-century African American music constituted evidence of black culture and marked a persistent African orality that still abides within African American textual production. While these trends inform this project, my inquiry focuses on the ways that writers placed elements of musical sound—such as rhythm, melody, choral singing, and harmony—at the center of their texts in order to shape public conversations about race. I focus on three literary genres fundamental to nineteenth-century rhetoric about race: slave narratives, sentimental fiction, and song collections. I approach these texts by turning to recent work in the interdisciplinary field of sound studies, and I examine how representations of musical sound structured these writers’ confrontations with injustice.

The result is an understanding of how representations of music within this literature helped establish concepts of subjectivity, personhood, and community for enslaved and ex-enslaved figures. Contrary to accounts that circumscribed nineteenth-century African American music and literature within humanist, ethnographic, and sentimentalist discourses, I argue that the musical sound represented within these texts sought to expose dominant power structures and convey methods of resistance. Rather than merely operating at the level of reportage, representations of music served as modes by which to think through enslavement and racial injustice. In my analysis of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, for example, I show how representations of rhythm and musical virtuosity signaled a turn away from previous generations of slave narratives that emphasized the self-liberating abilities of exemplary individuals; instead, through his representations of music, Northup comes to a more systematic understanding of enslavement that accounts for how antebellum U.S. culture marked enslaved persons simultaneously as subjects and objects. In another section of the project, I compare the appearance of hymns, spirituals, and parodies of minstrel songs in Martin Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America with the songs recorded in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred; or the Great Dismal Swamp to show instabilities within the rhetoric of antislavery sentimentalism, and in my discussion of the song collection Slave Songs of the United States I show how musical notation practices and recording and collecting processes structured negotiations of race after the Civil War.